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Inside The Violent Youth Gangs Terrorizing Naples

Already a victim of organized crime and drug trafficking, Naples is now also facing wanton violence from disillusioned youth.

Walking in the streets of Naples
Walking in the streets of Naples
Francesco Grignetti

NAPLES — The last attack happened a few days ago in Naples' northern outskirts of Pomigliano d'Arco. A group of 10 teenagers viciously assaulted two fellow youths, aged 14 and 15, in an attempt to steal their cellphones. The Italian police managed to arrest two of the aggressors, aged 15 and 13, but the crime shocked the country. In and around the southern city of Naples, the story is just one of many.

The night before that assault, another youth gang attacked 15-year-old Gaetano in front of a metro station in the neighborhood of Chiaiano. The group of assailants, all minors, beat Gaetano so badly that he suffered a ruptured spleen.

"What shocks me most about those neighborhoods is the emptiness," says Naples police superintendent Antonio De Iesu. "There's no common public space, and these children live on the streets."

In Chiaiano, the emptiness stretches for miles. The metro station's sole staff member barricades himself inside his booth. Local police have checked the station's security camera footage for information on the incident, but no one has come forward to help identify the perpetrators. "Naples has a lot of at-risk areas, even in the city center, but these violent new generations are a serious problem," says de Iesu.

Gaetano lost his spleen after being rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery. "It's a miracle my son is still alive," says his mother, Stella. "If anyone saw anything they should tell the authorities, this kind of attack should never happen again."

At 18%, Naples has one of the highest truancy rates in Europe. Some of the city's most well-known residents, including the sociologist Domenico De Masi and the anti-mob activist Roberto Saviano, have called these conditions "barbarous' and compared them to life in Afghanistan.

The wave of assaults by youth gangs has shaken Naples for the past two months. The first attacks began in the city's notoriously violent nightlife, with the slightest of wrong looks precipitating savage bar fights. Residents living near drinking establishments began to protest, sparking a violent reaction from the gangs.

Mauro Bocassini, president of the residents' association in the Via Aiello neighborhood, is terrorized. He's had his tires slashed several times over the past few weeks and was viciously beaten last October. Five hooded youths broke in and vandalized his building, forcing him to request a police escort to go to the supermarket on Christmas Eve. "These days I spend more time at the police station than with my family," he told Naples-based newspaper Il Mattino.

He was a model student.

Arturo Iavarone, 17, was stabbed in the neck last December while walking on the central street of Via Foria. A gang of youth targeted him and began to push him before pulling out their knives. "Arturo is still traumatized and has trouble speaking," says his mother, Marisa. "But his schoolmates insist on him going back, and it will be good for him to get closer to normality."

Arturo was lucky to survive the attack and recently returned to school, where he was a model student. His experience has galvanized his classmates and other students in Naples to try to put an end to the senseless violence. Hundreds of students held protests before Christmas to denounce the youth gangs terrorizing the city.

"I fear we're only at the beginning of a dramatic wave of urban terrorism, which is spreading fear in our children," says Marisa. "Entire generations are growing up in a culture of violence, and their parents are supporting them."

So far, police have only arrested one of the minors accused of assaulting Arturo. Marisa Iavarone says she spoke to the arrested boy's mother, who said that her son "isn't a bad kid and that these are just bad habits." But too often, says Iavarone, "children are effectively growing up without parents."

There's a side of Naples that's a functioning city, with its shiny new museums and rising numbers of tourists arriving. Then there's the other side, a city plagued by blind violence, divided between the assailants and the assaulted. A city where children grow up without dreams, just hoping they won't be the next one attacked.

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